Nick Johnson dunk

Nick Johnson had a real good time against Arizona State.
Photo by Casey Sapio -USA TODAY Sports

Senior Day went about as well as possible for the Arizona Wildcats basketball team. The Cats had a 15-point halftime lead, built it up to as much as 23, emptied the bench and let the departing players enjoy one last ovation in front of the McKale Center crowd.

The Wildcats had an extra hop in their collective step and found a long-lost gear in their transition game. It all added up to Arizona having fun again, which is just what was needed with tournament play about to begin.

The Wildcats had all the energy stats in their favor. The UA out-rebounded the Sun Devils by 12 including a 13-3 edge on the offensive glass. Arizona had twice as many steals as ASU and turned them into 12 fast break points compared to just a single bucket by the team in black.

Those fast break points were a rare treat. In the dozen games prior to Saturday the Wildcats had only hit double figures on the break once and, not surprisingly, it was in the 18-point home win against Washington.

That’s fun. Watching players getting out and running, converting in transition and throwing down dunks is fun.

(By the way, that Nick Johnson photo up above? A bigger version is available here. Right-click + Save image + Right-click + Save as desktop background = Digital poster.)

It hasn’t been the most entertaining brand of basketball over the past month. Low shooting percentages and minimal assist numbers produce unattractive results. Winning outweighs any style points, of course, but there wasn’t a lot of that either in the seven games leading up to this one.

We continue to watch because we’re students, alumni and fans and we care about these guys, even through the losses and uncomfortable wins. It’s like a parent going to a music recital for a typical child. You’re there because you love your kid and you want to support him, not because you’re expecting to hear great music.

Arizona seniors

You know it’s going well when your seniors end the game smiling on the bench.
Photo by Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Saturday afternoon we were afraid we might be hearing around rendition of “Chopsticks” but instead the Cats surprised us with a bit of Beethoven’s Fifth.

After the low of getting swept in L.A. it was great to see the players looking like they were enjoying themselves out there. This team is usually described with terms like “gritty” and “grind-it-out.” Those are admirable traits on the construction site or in truck commercials but they’re not very thrilling on a basketball court. Even when the Cats were in the top five you heard, “This team is going to kill me!” almost as often as “Bear Down.”

I’m not saying the Wildcats should start gambling in the passing lanes and leaking out instead of rebounding to run at all costs. Sean Miller still believes in No Easy Buckets and Nastiness Is Required. Whatever motto he comes up with for this postseason run, I can guarantee it’s going to smell more like steel-toed work boots than wing tips.

That’s why I didn’t mind Arizona’s woofing or the technical fouls against ASU. This group needs a fire in its core so it can play with an edge.

But there’s also room for fun. The simple joy of playing basketball against elite competition.

You know what else is fun? Sweeping your in-state rival by a combined 32 points. Seniors Solomon Hill and Kevin Parrom will be finishing their careers with a 6-2 record against Arizona State. That’s not quite Lute Olson’s final two senior classes (and many before that) going undefeated against the Devils but considering last year’s UA seniors finished with a losing record (4-5) against ASU it’s a step in the right direction.

The UA ended a disappointing conference season on a very high note. One win doesn’t exactly qualify as riding a wave of momentum into the postseason but the Cats are at least back up on the board.

Now the goal is to make the fun last as long as possible.

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Scott Terrell is geared up for tournament fun. Find the fire in your core on Twitter and Facebook.